Connemara is probably that vision of Ireland you get if you’ve never been to the country. Green. Rugged. Mountains form its core, a range of 12 peaks known as the 12 Bens. It’s coastline stretches from Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only true fjord, past countless inlets and beaches till it forms Galway Bay and meets the city. This sumptuous landscape possesses two of Irelands finest drives, the Sky Road and the Inagh Valley. It all leads to one conclusion, it’s a place to hit the road. It needs to be on your bucket list. These are the best things to do in Connemara on a road trip.
We spent two days travelling this County Galway region in August of 2020. The country had relaxed it’s restrictions with cases low and spirits high. Nonetheless social distancing was very much in force and tourist attractions and hospitality pursued a safe approach with vigor. One can assume that 2021 will see move of the same with staycations once again very much on the agenda.
Where is this Connemara Place?
Connemara is a district to the west of the city of Galway. It is a unique part of Ireland, in landscape and culture. Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) spans much of the area. At its heart is the Connemara National Park, one of six national parks in Ireland. The 20 km² area is defined by bogs, mountains, and lakes. The Connemara region is not all barren though, the town of Clifden is its heartbeat, and a suitable base. Oscar Wilde best described Connemara as a savage beauty.
Areas such as this can be seen by guided tour, but only in a limited way. The freedom to stop where you wish, venture to small random places, and control your own trip come via road tripping. Of course, Ireland does drive on the left which can be a little bit of a put off for many first time visitors from abroad. Fear not, my driving tips for visitors to Ireland is at hand to put your mind at ease.
Where to Stay in Connemara
While much of Connemara is rural and wild, tourism is a strong influence on the local economy and hotels, B&B’s and Airbnb’s dot the landscape. To be in touch with good amenities I do recommend being close to some of the rural center’s. Galway is definitely worth a consideration, the largest urban centre on the west coast, with hotels, restaurants and pubs aplenty. Connemara can then be visited in a series of day trips.
But if your preference is in the heart of Connemara, look no further than the main town of Clifden. Perched on the coast, its a vibrant place with way more pubs and restaurants than its 1500 people need. The hotel options include the tres classy Abbeyglen Castle Hotel and Ballynahinch Castle, to the more sedate Foyles Hotel and Alcock and Brown Hotel. High season demand leads to inflated prices, with the best deals to be found in the shoulder months of April through June and September to October. You’ll more likely find the best weather in those months too.
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Things to do in Connemara (on a road trip)
We started our road trip from Salthill, which we used as a base for our days in Galway. You can read more about the attractions of Galway City on my previous blog. Our Connemara loop first took us to Spiddal, which is the beginning of the local Gaeltacht here. Our direction on day two would see us first stop at Glenlo Abbey, a five star hotel that has a impeccable reputation. The road between the two cuts through the Moycullen Bog, a vast National Heritage area. From there we would continue on towards the main stops of Connemara.
To explore Connemara you need at least two days of travelling to really appreciate its finer pleasures. While one day will take you from Galway to the Clifden, the Sky Road, and Kylemore Castle, this is a place to slow travel and take all that scenery in, and stop where the whim takes you. The blog I’ve written is with that length of trip in mind, but we could easily have extended beyond into three or four days.
Our trip was somewhat marred by Storm Ellen, which raged it’s own personal war on Ireland for three days. While it wasn’t a washout winds were much a factor, and ruled out some of our aspirations to visit beaches and go hiking. Ireland is wet and windy at the best of times, but storms to render it a little more dangerous. That said the gods of the road were fair to us and gave us some blue spells.
Visit the Gaeltacht at Spiddal
Spiddal is a small village of only 237 at last count. If you keep your ears open you might just catch some gossip in the native tongue. That said I’m not advising going here for to eavesdrop. The coast here is the real attraction and the ocean ferociously batters the beach. With a perfect unimpeded view west, it’s one of the best places for seeing the sun set in the county.
What is the “Gaeltacht”?The Gaeltacht are regions of Ireland where the Irish (Gaelic) language is still the predominantly spoken one. There are a number of Gaeltacht around the country in the counties of Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Meath. In total these areas have a population of around 96,000 who use Irish as a first language.
Witness timeless crafts first hand at Spiddal Craft Village and Cafe
An Ceardlann Craft and Design Studios is a must see in the village. Firstly the craft shops are housed in beautiful little cottages, all painted in a myriad of bright colours. Street art distinguishes one from the other, and lets you know what to expect from the inside. Some of the near-lost crafts that are on show include basket weaving, acrylic painting, stained glass, pottery, and the making of Celtic Jewellery. If you are looking for a unique Irish gift to take home, you are definitely in the right place here.
Stay or Dine at Glenlo Abbey
This 5 star hotel is worth its inclusion on this list purely because the next time I’m in Galway, I’ll be laying my hat here. Set in 138 acres on the shores of Lough Corrib and the result of a conversion of a 1740 manor house, it’s spectacular. That’s before you set eyes on the Pullman Restaurant. This is housed in two carriages taken from the Orient Express, and its food is the recipient of 2 AA Rosettes. Add falconry, fishing, and cycling in the estate to the possible activities, and its definitely a reason to spend another couple if days in Connemara. Double occupancy rates start at around the €260 mark.
Having hit the road later on day two of our road trip (thanks to a typical Irish morning) and got as far as here looking for some lunch. Covid times being Covid times, we weren’t allowed to enter the hotel when we visited. However they have an Airstream to the rear of the hotel, for nosey wanderers like myself. Trust me it’s not a bad substitute as you can look over the grounds while enjoying their speciality, a goats cheese wrap. Or at least we were led to believe it was their speciality. It more than lived up to its billing.
Get surprised by Brigit’s Gardens & Cafe
Sixteen minutes from Glenlo Abbey it’s time to ease off the accelerator. Down a few winding roads off the N59 is a real curiosity. We sat in the car and debated if it was worth visiting. Thankfully the right choice was made. Admission to the gardens costs €6.50 and you’ll find up to date information on dates and times of opening at Brigit’s Garden.
Brigit’s Garden is a botanical garden with a difference. While trees, flowers and shrubs are used to decorate the eleven acres, they are far from the focus. Instead it’s Irish mythology that takes centre stage, with a socially distanced route taking you through each distinct part. There are four gardens each themed around the four Celtic seasons, and within you’ll find ancient structures such as Crannogs and Celtic huts. The sundial on site is the largest and most complex found in Ireland. The gardens were designed by Mary Reynolds, an acclaimed award winning Irish gardener. Throughout you’ll find sculptures carved in bronze, bog oak and stone. It’s a blissful place to pass through on a bright sunny day.
Of course we couldn’t pass the café without sampling some of the loveliness that they serve. I know we have now eaten in 2 of the 4 places I’ve recommended so far today, but aren’t all trips about enjoying all that a locality has to offer including it’s fresh produce. Rest assured Brigit’s Garden Café is as good as you’ll find in the middle of nowhere, anywhere. Their soups are particularly delightful.
You’ll barely have gotten back up to full speed when you should turn to visit this tower house. Aughnanure Castle was the 16th century home of the O’Flaherty’s who ruled Connaught for a considerable time. The families strength came from an alliance when Donal an Chogaidh O’Flaherty married Grace O’Malley, the feared pirate queen of Mayo in Ireland. The castle has survived the centuries well, and the six stories tower house can be visited, with the banqueting hall as the highlight. Apparently. While we were able to walk the site in August 2020, the tower wasn’t open, but at least the usual €5 admission wasn’t charged.
Quiet Man Bridge
A mere 10 km from the castle, is this not to be missed location for fans of the Quiet Man. From here, John Wayne sat and looked across the landscape remembering his childhood. For those of who aren’t fans or have never watched, well its a nice double arch bridge anyway, constructed in stone. Great place for a selfie.
Connemara National Park- The best thing to do in Connemara
The Connemara National Park was opened in 1980 and covers a land area of 2000 hectares. The lands once belonged to Kylemore Abbey and Letterfrack Industrial School. The lands were sold to the state to form the park. Much of the landscape is blanket bog with the Twelve Bens rising from the sea level landscape. The highest of these is Benbaun at 729 metres.
Within the park there is much wildlife with meadow pipits, skylarks, stonechats, chaffinches, robins, wrens, kestrel, sparrow hawk, merlin and peregrine falcon the predominant bird species. Mammals such as rabbits, foxes, stoats, pine marten, shrews, minks and bats can mostly be seen at night.
There are only two routes that really travel the park. The first is the road around that passes through Spiddal and north towards Killary fjord. The other is one that dissects the park and passes the Lough Inagh valley. It’s this that gives some of the most unrivalled views around.
Lough Inagh Valley
The Lough Inagh Valley sat at the top of my list of where to drive on this trip. Online searches had me frothing at the mouth looking at the lake with the mountains to the rear. While the weather didn’t exactly play ball, and give me some of those reflective mirror lake views I was looking for, the lake was still charming in grey.
The road is a short one at only 15 km, but it twists and rolls through the valley opening up breathtaking perspectives with each turn. There isn’t much opportunity to stop without causing some sort of traffic obstruction, so its best to just let your memory capture what’s around you till you get to the lakeside. Finally the there’s a chance to pullover and appreciate your surroundings. The lakeside was swamp-like after the deluge in recent days (that’s August in Ireland for you) so I admired from afar.
Connemara National Park Visitor Centre & Hikes
With us once more on the N59 having traversed the Lough Inagh valley, a short journey west takes us to Letterfrack and the Connemara national Park Visitor centre. This is the real gateway to the park, and the real means to get there is on foot. In summer of 2020 the visitor centre was shut. In better times the visitor centre (which is located in old farm buildings) gives information on the park, its history and local wildlife. There is also abundant information on the trails, and the mandatory tea rooms. If you can’t wait, Alltrails (which has often been my friend in 2020) has a full list of trails at the link enclosed.
The easiest accessed and most hiked is the Diamond Hill hike. It’s the closest to the Connemara National Park and its length can be adjusted to suit all fitness levels. Naturally the longer the option taken, the better the views that one can expect. The shortest option is only 2.5 km, but the more commonly taken trail is the 6 km upper trail loop. You can guarantee amazing views of the 12 Bens and Connemara landscape. Unless you happen to come on a day where the wind is howling from a storm! Alas this is one I had to leave for another day.
Find some Connemara Ponies- The cutest of the top things to do in Connemara
Connemara’s largest mammal is its own indigenous species of pony. The Connemara Pony has long galloped through this landscape. They are defined by their tough nature, having adapted to the harshness of the terrain and weather. The adults can grow to a maximum of 148 cm and they are particularly good for riding. There are many Connemara pony shows around the British Isles. Its really unknown where the ponies originated from, with theories suggesting they came with Vikings or the Spanish, or that they are descendant from the Irish Hobby, a now extinct species. Wherever they may have, these ponies will melt your heart when you see them.
If culture and history is what you are after on this road trip, then stop right here. While technically you will arrive here before the visitor centre, it wouldn’t fit in well with the flow of the blog to tell it that way. So back we go. Kylemore Abbey is as remarkable a building as you’ll find in Connemara. When you add its location overlooking Pollacapall Lough, and the vast grounds and sculpted Victorian Walled gardens, you have one of Ireland’s best tourist assets.
Kylemore Abbey was built in 1867 as a Victorian Castle by the affluent Mitchell Henry, who brought his family to be raised here from Manchester. Clearly he had a vision of what we see nowadays. The house was built by architect James Franklin Fuller. Inside there are 23 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, and many more. The grounds covered an area of 13,000 acres. All that only cost them £18,000, about the same price as three bricks and a wheelbarrow nowadays. However a few years later tragedy struck the family when Mitchells wife Margaret took sick during a trip to Egypt, and died. In her honour Mitchell built her a church near the house, but her remains are buried in a mausoleum in the woods.
The Henry family sold the house to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1902. They changed much of the interiors removing the Italian and Connemara marble that adorned the interior. In 1920 it passed to an order of the Benedictine nuns, who still live here to this day. Over the past century it has been a guesthouse, school, and finally its current incarnation as a tourist attraction.
Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Gardens
The grand house itself can be visited as part of the €14 entry ticket to the estate, At present only the ground floor has been restored to tour, as it still functions as a home for the Benedictine order. While the furnishings are wonderfully Victorian its not worth the price of admission in itself. Though the other features compensate with the church, mausoleum, and the Victorian gardens all accessible. A free shuttle service runs between the house and gardens for those who don’t wish to make the one kilometre walk through the lush woodland. But perhaps the greatest asset of the place is free, that view across the lake onto the house. It’s definitely one of the best in Ireland.
This natural feature is further back along the N79 from Kylemore Castle, and definitely an option for those looking to leave Connemara behind and begin exploring County Mayo. Ireland’s only true fjord, it is followed dramatically by a section Wild Atlantic Way. Killary fjord cuts 16 km in from the Atlantic, and is surrounded to the north by Mweelrea mountain, the largest in Connaught. Shellfish fishing is famed in the area with mussel farms evident along the fjord. To appreciate it even more Killary Cruises offer 90 minute boat tours out of Leenane, a scenic village that featured in the movie, The Field.
Rather than head to Mayo, its time to get back on track in Connemara and on the N79. Our next stop is some 20 minutes off the road, as we near the town of Clifden. This little curiosity is a tidal island and as this is a road trip guide it would be remiss of me to not include it. The island can be reached in high tide, and a line of arrows sends you in the correct direction. Can I suggest doing good research on when the tides are in your favour before making your trip. You can do that here.
Once on the island seek out Feichin’s Church. this 7th century ruin was once completely submerged in sand. It, along with the village remnants around it, were abandoned when the great famine hit hard in the 19th century. There’s a holy well to be found too. However if you just want to sit on a sandy beach on a near deserted island, this might just be the place to do it in Ireland.
If already advised that Clifden is the best town to prop yourself at a bar in at the end of the day. But what else does this town 50 kilometres from Galway have to offer. On first glance, it’s a bright colourful Victorian town, well set up to deal with throes of tourists. Cafes and restaurants compliment well the pubs. Among the best are Mitchell’s restaurant and Darcy Twelve. If Irish music is your thing (and let’s be honest it should be in this part of the country) then look no further than Lowry’s Music and Whiskey bar. Better still come in April when the town hosts an Annual Traditional Music Festival.
Within easy reach are an almost endless list of outdoor activities. popular hiking takes you to the national park, and along the coastline on the Clifden Beach Road. Clifden’s bay has a sandy beach, kayaking, sailing, boat rides and surfing. Fishing and canoeing are also popular outdoor activities. Just outside Clifden is Ard Bear, where the first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown had a bit of a rough landing. Every August the Connemara Pony Show takes over the town.
While our visit to Clifden was just whistle-stop, we decided there and then it would be the prefect base for our next Connemara trip.
Three kilometres from the town and not far from the Clifden Beach road is the towns eponymous castle. We had an encounter with a herd of marauding sheep as we sought to find our way in. The castle was built in 1818 by John D’Arcy, the founder of the town. Built in the gothic revival style, it was more manor house than castle. You reach it by following the trail from the stone archway on the roadside. Parking along the road here is permitted.
The trail loops down for about 15 minutes before the castle finally looms into view. There are signs saying no entry, but I think those relate to the fields on either side. Worth knowing though is that if there has been heavy rains before hand, the trail is likely to flood, and is impassible without good boots. As happened on our visit. We could only make it to 100 metres from the castle. For those pushing on, the ruins can be walked inside and around. Even reaching this far was worthwhile though, as the structure is impressive. Clifden Castle fell into ruin in the 1930’s but not before a despicable event that left it haunted. Find out why it is one of the most haunted in Ireland here.
See the views from the Sky road
The Sky Road is a popular driving, hiking and cycling route. It’s no surprise as at the top is one of the best views of the Atlantic in the country. It is a 16km route out of the town, which I guess will dissuade some to try the Sky Road Walk part. Each follow the same route to the Kingstown Peninsula by the Clifden Beach Road, before passing Clifden castle, and climbing steadily to the vista point on the Sky Road.
Wonder why its called the Sky Road? You won’t when you get to this point. Thankfully there’s plenty of parking to jump out and appreciate what’s before you. The elevated view takes in the Atlantic, its islands, and stretches to County Clare to the south and Mayo to the north. Quite simply its an unmissable thing to do in Connemara on a road trip.
Dan O’Hara Homestead
This heritage centre is located in the former home of Dan O’Hara, a farmer who was forced to leave his home in the 1840’s and emigrate. The old thatch cottage has been turned into a museum and the adjoining land into an open farm and a Connemara heritage centre. It’s perhaps the easiest place to see Connemara Ponies too. The heritage centre shows old countryside practices in Ireland such as turf cutting and making soda bread. If that builds up a hunger there is a restaurant on site. Tours of the heritage centre cost €8.50.
Other Things to do near Connemara
As the Dan O’Hara Homestead was our last target in Connemara we now left the area in our rear view mirror. Our base was Galway and we returned to the city for the evening, but would venture out again on the second day. En route back to the city, keep a sharp eye out for Pines Island, an island on Derryclare Lough, and one of the most photographed locations in the whole area.
Those looking to extend the road trip can travel south from Clifden on the R341. This semi-circular diversion will take you by a very coastal route, and some of the counties best beaches await, in particular Dog’s Bay. There are other distractions too, Connemara Smokehouse and Factory Shop is a must for salmon lovers. Alternatively there’s an attraction for those who have been enthralled by the instruments used by the traditional musicians of the county. Roundstone Musical Instruments & Crafts are skilled instrument makers. Here Malachy Kearns displays the craft of making bodhrans, one of Ireland’s oldest instruments. The road takes you back to the N79 at Derryclare Lough.
At alternate plan for the area is visiting Cong, and this is reached by turning north at Maam Cross and following the banks of Lough Corrib to the famed Irish town. It’s not technically in Connemara (nor Galway) but would be a shame to miss if in the county.
Cong lies 30 km from Maam Cross. The town technically marks the border between Galway and Mayo, so I get away with including it. You can even stand on the bridge separating the counties. But I digress, this isn’t why we are here. Cong is ranked as one of the top things to do in Ireland on TripAdvisor, and is one of its most visited places. While the town is impeccably cute, this isn’t why. It all boils down to one reason, this is where The Quiet Man was filmed. This movie is how a lot of tourists may have imagined Ireland is going to be, and so it might be if 70 years had not passed. The movie put Ireland on the tourist map.
The town is alive as you approach with crowds exploring the streets. Bear in mind this was on a year where no foreign tourists were present. One can only imagine a different August. Parking is difficult to find, so seek out the Parking Lot on the towns edge and walk in. First on your agenda must be the Quiet Man Cottage, a thatch-roofed museum stacked with memorabilia from the movie. Then onto Cong Abbey a 13th century Augustinian Abbey now lying in ruins. To the fore of the abbey is a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The Abbey ruins are also a springboard to a number of lovely walks in the forest beyond, with intriguing finds such as the the Monks Fishing House found within.
If your pocket stretches far enough then perhaps a night in Cong appeals. It’s premier hotel is Ashford Castle, which has found its way onto worlds best hotels lists. It’s not surprising given its location on the lake edge and aesthetics. The core of the castle was built in 1228, but given a Victorian sprucing up in 1852. It now sits on a pedestal as Ireland’s finest castle hotel. It’s list of former guests is impressive including Ronald Regan, John Lennon, Brad Pitt and King George V of England. Who wouldn’t want to be included in such company?
From Ireland’s most opulent castle to one of its most beautiful ruins. Menlo Castle lies 40 kilometres from Cong and just outside Galway and is the last stop on our Connemara road trip. This charming ruin is covered in ivy and is perfect to explore and build your influencer shot portfolio. Entry is down a laneway and over a gate into a field. However the public is welcome on the land.
The castles history is tragic. Built by the Blake family in 1569, it was engulfed in flames in 1910, and their descendant Eleanor Blake presumably perished in the flames. Ulick Blake inherited the castle only to be found dead outside a few years later. It has since laid in ruins, and nature has reclaimed it. It is now a popular free sight in Galway.
Summary of the What to do in Connemara- On a Road Trip
Of course it’s your road trip and the beauty of road trips is foraging your own path through an area. I hope I’ve given you a glimpse of some of what Connemara has to offer. As earlier recommended, two days should give a glimpse into Connemara life, and make a firm dent on its best activities. Without a doubt there is more than enough to do whatever your interests, be they adventure, culture, history, or foodie based. If you prefer to just lay on a beach watching the ocean, you can do that too. May the weather be with you.
Private tours of the best things to do in Connemara and Galway
What else to do on Ireland’s West Coast
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